Adam Podlesh was warming up before Maryland’s nonconference finale against Florida International when coach Ralph Friedgen called for him.
The punter wasn’t sure what was in store for him, and he certainly didn’t expect to possibly become a highly unorthodox solution to one of his coach’s biggest problems.
“He said ‘How do you feel about playing wideout?’ ” Podlesh recalled. “I start laughing because I think he’s joking. He says ‘I’m serious.’ I say ‘Am I still going to punt?’ He’s like ‘Yeah, I’m just trying to figure out some things.’ ”
Podlesh’s brief tryout the next week didn’t lead to any additional work on offense. Yet Friedgen’s willingness to test the idea was as much a reflection of the man special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski considers the most athletic punter in the country as it was the Terrapins’ dearth of game-ready wide receivers.
Instead of emerging as an unusual double-threat, the 6-foot, 205-pound Podlesh simply continued to boom punts as he has for the last four seasons. His 44.6-yard average ranks second in the ACC, and he has dropped 14 of his 33 punts inside the 20 for Maryland (6-2, 3-1) entering tomorrow’s game at No. 19 Clemson (7-2, 4-2).
Friedgen pointed to Podlesh’s performance as a critical component of the Terps’ control of field position throughout Saturday’s victory over Florida State. It was also Podlesh’s punt that hung long enough for Maryland’s coverage team to force a fumble in the third quarter Oct. 14 at Virginia, a play that sparked a rally from a 20-0 deficit and a three-game winning streak.
“It’s not things I’ve been doing better, it’s things I’ve been doing more consistently,” Podlesh said. “My first couple years playing, I could hit the ball for the most part the way I’m hitting it now, but could I hit as many times in a row as I’m doing now? I don’t think so.”
He wasn’t tried out at multiple positions before, either. Rychleski tinkered with the idea of using the former high school linebacker and running back as a kickoff specialist to help with coverage before sticking with his more conventional options.
The wide receiver experiment was even more creative. During the bye week, Podlesh was in the weight room — lifting as he usually does with the running backs and linebackers — when Friedgen asked him to work at Z receiver, with senior Drew Weatherly providing a tutorial on the routes and how they are run.
Friedgen then issued a final piece of advice: “Don’t pull anything.”
So he spent two days at wideout, his first experience at the position since his freshman year of high school. Yet after staring at Friedgen’s intricate offense for less than a week, Podlesh figured it was probably too late to salvage a career as a receiver.
“He came in after the break and he said ‘Do you really think this is a good idea?’ ” Friedgen said. “I said ‘No, probably not.’ It was worth a look, though.”
It doesn’t mean Podlesh might not get a look at some point. Rychleski said players constantly pester him about running a fake with a punter whose 40-yard time is less than 4.5 seconds, and he’s also the holder for kicker Dan Ennis on extra points and field goals.
“You can always tell how good a player is by how other players react,” Rychleski said. “They look at other punters across the country and say ‘Adam’s a heck of a lot better than those guys.’ They start appreciating it more and more.”
So did a handful of students who approached the punter in the on-field celebration after Saturday’s victory with a “Podlesh for Heisman” poster in tow. That campaign is a long shot, but Podlesh will continue to fulfill Rychleski’s insistence his kickers and punters possess the athleticism and tackling ability of the rest of their teammates.